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War Communism in Retrospect

Paul Flewers

WAR COMMUNISM IS generally considered to be the overall policy of the Soviet government from the late spring of 1918 until early 1921. It is associated with the state control and nationalisation of industry, the attempts to eradicate private trade and to replace it by non-market methods of exchange, the coalescence of non-party and party organisations and state institutions, and the rise of compulsion and coercion in social relations.

A predetermined policy or a pragmatic response?
Authorities differ as to the rationale behind War Communism. Some view it as the result of the Bolsheviks’ preconceived desire to drive immediately forward to the suppression of capitalism. Robert Conquest considers that War Communism was entirely in line with Bolshevik precepts, and that "far from being a ‘war’ measure the ‘War Communism’ policy was a conscious attempt to create a new social order".1 Evan Mawdsley says that War Communism "was essentially the economic policy of victorious Bolshevism". The nationalisation of industry, the establishment of food detachments, and the restrictions upon private trade "had been developing at the centre and in the grass roots since the early winter of 1917-18". Furthermore: "The fact that the policies did not all come into force immediately after October was not due to any early moderation ... but simply to the fact that it took the new government a certain amount of time to gain a measure of control over the country."2 Paul Craig Roberts says that the policies of War Communism "were implicit in the doctrine of revolutionary Marxian socialism", and "constituted a Marxian economic programme".3

Others view War Communism as originating in a series of emergency measures introduced to deal with the increasingly difficult economic and military situation, but which was then justified in ideological terms. Isaac Deutscher says that the "desperate shifts and expedients" of food requisitioning, nationalisation and trade restrictions "looked to the party like an unexpectedly rapid realisation of its own programme": "The Bolshevik was therefore inclined to see the essential features of fully-fledged communism embodied in the war economy of 1918-19."4 Moshe Lewin says that when the Bolshevik leaders found themselves in a position "in which all the allegedly ‘capitalist’ mechanisms began to disintegrate under the strains of war", they "fell prey to the illusion that the dream [of socialism] was becoming real".5

Alec Nove stands in between these two interpretations, and considers that the drift into War Communism was due to the chronic decline and chaos in the industrial sector, and to the collapse of food supplies to the cities, and he warns against interpreting the regime’s "ideological garb" for their actions as a preconceived plan. Nonetheless, the ideological side cannot be ignored: "Indeed, it is quite clear that Lenin and his friends approached practical issues with a whole number of idées fixes, and that these influenced their behaviour. The consequences of actions inspired by ideas could influence events by further worsening the objective situation and therefore rendering further action necessary on empirical grounds. And so on. There was a process of interaction between circumstances and ideas."6

Lenin veered between the ideological and pragmatic explanations. Looking back in October 1921, he said that by the previous spring "it became evident that we had suffered defeat in our attempt to introduce the socialist principles of production and distribution by &146;direct assault&146;, that is, in the shortest, quickest and most direct way".7 Only a few months previously he said that the Bolsheviks had been living "in the conditions of a savage war that imposed an unprecedented burden on us and left us no choice but to take wartime measures in the economic sphere as well".8

Trotsky considered that War Communism was "the systematic regimentation of consumption in a besieged fortress", as the Soviet government put all the "scanty resources" of the country into supporting the war industries and keeping the city populations alive, but that the Soviet government also intended to develop such "methods of regimentation" directly into a planned economy. He adds, however, that this "theoretical mistake", these "utopian hopes", were due to the Bolsheviks banking on the early victory of proletarian revolutions in Western Europe, and that the Soviet republic would soon receive aid from the socialist regimes in those more advanced countries.9

One of the basic axioms of Marxism has always been that socialism is possible only in countries in which capitalism has developed to the degree that there exists an advanced economy and a sufficiently large and educated proletariat which can take power and run society in a more rational and efficient manner. The Bolsheviks did not disagree in principle with this, but, in breaking from the Second International’s schema of consecutive historical stages, Lenin, as Georg Lukács said, broke with "mechanical fatalism", that is, "with the concept of proletarian class consciousness as a mechanical product of its class situation".10 Whilst Lenin was relatively pragmatic in the economic sphere, some of his colleagues considered that if the historical process could be forced in respect of the seizure of power, then it could be forced in respect of other factors. Although no Bolsheviks at this juncture considered that the Soviet republic could survive in isolation, they nonetheless were convinced that in the meantime considerable advances could be made towards socialism within the bounds of their country, and many Bolsheviks did get carried away in their enthusiasm, as Karl Radek later admitted: "It would be ridiculous to deny that we committed many mistakes in the struggle, or that we had ever carried out a mistaken policy; but it would be equally ridiculous to deny that ideology, which had taken on its own dynamic, very often transformed provisional, transitional measures into a system which in its turn influenced the measures and prolonged them beyond what was necessary."11

Many of the measures introduced during War Communism were not peculiar to the Bolshevik regime. The Tsarist government had introduced a grain monopoly during the First World War, the Provisional Government continued with it, and, at the time of its collapse, it was preparing to resort to some form of coercive measures to obtain farm produce. Direction of labour and industrial conscription have been introduced in various countries during periods of war, including Britain during the Second World War. Distribution methods that heavily distort the market have also been introduced in various countries during periods of shortages, and many decidedly capitalist governments have placed industry under state control, or have nationalised enterprises, during wars or similar difficult periods. Nevertheless, it must be emphasised that as the Bolsheviks were consciously anti-capitalist, their attitude towards such measures was different. Steps reluctantly taken by capitalist governments as emergency measures were looked upon with anticipation and enthusiasm by many Bolsheviks. They were far more willing than capitalist governments to introduce such measures, and they did not hesitate to go beyond the bounds of mere expediency.

War Communism in town and country
The Bolsheviks took power in a country that was already in the throes of a profound and worsening economic crisis. Three years of war had put a tremendous strain upon the Russian economy. Between 1913 and 1917 the number of industrial workers in Russia had increased by 16.38 per cent, but industrial production had declined by 22.71 per cent.12 Russia was gripped by an inflationary crisis, transport and communications were deteriorating, and food supplies to the cities were in decline. The situation worsened after the October Revolution. Industrial production continued to decline, and unemployment became a major problem. On 1 January 1917 there were just over 400,000 industrial workers in Petrograd, by 1 January 1918 there were just under 340,000, by 1 May 1918 there were 143,000.13 By August 1918 264 of Moscow’s 1190 enterprises had already shut.14 In the Soviet republic as a whole, unemployment had risen to around 500,000 by May 1918, a large proportion of a small working class.15 The food shortage in urban areas became chronic, and from January 1918 the Soviet regime was sending food procurement detachments into the countryside.

Although, as we have seen, the connection between War Communism and the Civil War has been disputed, it cannot be denied that the outbreak of the latter coincided with the intensification and the systematisation of the hitherto desultory and ragged process of industrial nationalisation, and with the introduction of a distinctly interventionist policy in the countryside. In fact, the Civil War became the determining factor in Soviet economic policy. E.H. Carr says: "In agriculture it intensified every demand, and increased every difficulty of production and supply, thus forcing issues which would otherwise have matured at a more leisurely and manageable pace. In industry ... it transformed all major industry into a supply organisation for the Red Army, and made industrial policy an item of military strategy; and every decision was dictated by emergency and taken without regard to long-term prospects and principles."16

The effects of the Civil War upon the Soviet economy undoubtedly forced the more moderate Bolsheviks into supporting and implementing the far-reaching measures which had previously been advocated only by their more impetuous colleagues.

The Civil War led to much of the territory of the former Russian Empire falling outwith the control of the Soviet government. Ukraine, which had provided the Russian Empire with 78 per cent of its coal, 74 per cent of its iron ore, 58 per cent of its steel, and 80 per cent of its grain, did not come under a stable Soviet government until 1920.17 The oil from Baku and the Caucasus, which had constituted 96.3 per cent of the total oil output of the Russian Empire, was not available to the Soviet regime until late 1919.18 Flax from the Baltic states and cotton from Turkestan were unavailable until early 1920. Large tracts of Russian territory were either under anti-Bolshevik forces, or were effectively no man’s land. The blockade of the Soviet republic cut foreign trade practically to zero. The general chaos resulting from the constantly shifting front lines in the Civil War greatly disrupted transport and communications, and this exacerbated the problems of supplying the urban areas with food and raw materials.

The statification of industry intensified under War Communism, and by the spring of 1920 62 per cent of large and medium enterprises, encompassing 86 per cent of the workforce, had been nationalised.19 Not all large and medium enterprises were nationalised, some remained in private hands, but came under the jurisdiction of the VSNKh, the Supreme Council of National Economy, the members of which were appointed from regional Councils of National Economies (sovnarkhozy), trade union executives and the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. An incredibly involved and cumbersome framework of institutions evolved. Each industry was grouped into a trust under a centre (glavk), of which there were about 90 at the end of 1919, and 42 in 1920. The scope of the activity and authority of the different glavki varied. Some industries were directly responsible to VSNKh. In just the first few months of War Communism, the regional sovnarkhozy were abolished, provincial sovnarkhozy were then given greater powers, but faced a challenge from newly-created provincial glavki organs. Further conflicts arose between the vertically-constructed glavki and the horizontally-constructed sovnarkhozy, and between trade unions and factory committees. Throughout War Communism, a bureaucratic dogfight took place amongst the myriad organisations that had become full or semi-statal institutions under the Soviet regime, or had been set up by the regime. Distribution was similarly managed by a confusing array of overlapping institutions, and the distributive cooperatives were brought under state administration.

As production fell further, the authorities responded by intensifying the statification of industry and distribution, even after the end of the Civil War. During 1920 a large number of small industries were nationalised, including 48 per cent of those employing between three and five people, 36 per cent of those employing two people, and 18 per cent of those employing just one person.20 This astonishing move, which, as several commentators have noted, contradicted the Bolshevik’s programmes,21 was due to the fact that smaller industries were of increasing importance to the Soviet economy, as they were by now often more efficient than bigger enterprises (their simpler technology was able to withstand the rigours of poor maintenance and cruder fuel, and much of rural industry was handicraft), and the state institutions wished to control the small industries to prevent their produce from disappearing into the black market.

The defeat of the White Guards by the Red Army brought back under Soviet control increasingly large areas of Russian and other territory. However, not only was much of this land ravaged by months if not years of civil war, its return to Moscow’s rule exacerbated economic disorganisation. Carr says: "When the territory of the RSFSR shrank in the summer of 1919 to the dimensions of ancient Muscovy, the centralised control of industry was a far more practicable proposition than it could have appeared earlier or later."22

The state monopolised the distribution at officially fixed prices of an increasing number of products. Roaring inflation rendered the official prices meaningless, and, as Carr says, by 1920 distribution at fixed prices was "virtually equivalent to gratis distribution", and wages were mainly paid in kind. Carr continues: "But by that time supplies in the hands of state organs available for distribution had also declined to negligible dimensions."23 The black market provided over two-thirds of the food supply in the Soviet republic, and four times as much grain as the official supply organisations. In January 1919 only 19 per cent of food for urban areas went through official channels, rising to 29 per cent in April 1920.24 Runaway inflation led to the complete disorganisation of state finance. The taxation system collapsed, and no state budgets were issued from mid-1919 until early 1921.25 Money became increasingly redundant as a means of exchange, and the cost of printing a banknote became more than its face value. Nevertheless, Carr warns against accepting the notion that the Bolsheviks were deliberately aiming at the immediate implementation of a moneyless economy.26

The decline of industry was to have serious social consequences. Already by September 1918 the industrial workforce of Petrograd was a mere 30 per cent of its size in January 1917, and its metalworking sector, amongst whom the Bolsheviks enjoyed their strongest base of support, had dropped in the same period from 250,000 to under 46,000, a decline of over 80 per cent.27 Even prior to War Communism many workers were becoming disillusioned with the Bolsheviks, either showing less interest in politics, or supporting non-Bolshevik parties. The sheer struggle for survival led many workers to dabble in petty trading, often using the factory’s scarce resources to make household items and farm tools to exchange for agricultural produce. Many others left for the countryside, and unemployment was replaced by a labour shortage.

Furthermore, as David Mandel says, "what remained of Petrograd’s factory workers was deprived of its most resolute, dynamic and capable elements".28 The number of Bolsheviks in Petrograd fell from 43,000 in October 1917 to 7,000 in August 1918. And although most of them remaining were workers, the vast majority of Bolsheviks were by now away from the factory bench in party and government posts, and in the Red Army.29 This drain continued throughout the Civil War. Around 70 per cent of Moscow’s workers aged 20-24, 55 per cent of those aged 25-29, and 35 per cent of those aged 30-35 served in the Red Army, many as volunteers. William Chase says that amongst them were "some of the revolution’s most enthusiastic supporters", and Moscow’s "most physically able and skilled workers", and their departure "entailed a considerable reduction of the city’s productive population".30 Not surprisingly, leading Bolsheviks such as Bukharin were talking of the "disintegration of the proletariat".31

As the Soviet government claimed to represent the popular masses, this meant that the organisations that under previous governments had been set up to defend the working class were now in a position of mediating between the workers expressing their local and individual interests, and the government, which had much wider interests and concerns. In theory, there was no essential contradiction between the Soviet government and the working class. Just how the relationship between the working class and the government and party organs was to function was never spelt out. The Bolsheviks had no agreed policy. Lenin had grasped the need for the combination of central planning and local initiative, but his writings remained rather vague. Some Bolsheviks emphasised centralist solutions, whilst others emphasised decentralism. With the central organs under Soviet control, it was pretty much inevitable that with the flux at a local level, and the disintegration of the working class, the tendency towards centralisation would predominate. The exercising of workers’ control requires an active, politically aware workforce, and in its absence the running of industry becomes bureaucratised. The necessary conditions for effective workers’ control were rapidly diminishing.32

War Communism brought into the open and accelerated many of the problems that were posed by the very nature of a soviet-style regime. The disintegration of the working class under War Communism led to the steady bureaucratisation of both Soviet institutions and the Communist Party. Mandel says that "the demoralised and emaciated working class still in the factories was in no position to exert any influence or control over them [the Bolsheviks] and the new state they had built".33 The drift of many workers from the Bolsheviks led the latter to revert to a paternalistic stance towards the workers, which revealed itself as a form of substitutionism – the Communist Party acting on behalf of the working class, assuming that through its control of the Soviet state it expressed the interests of the class, and that there were no grounds for conflict between the working class and the party and state institutions.34

The Soviet government was obliged to confront the low level of productivity and discipline within industry. Even prior to War Communism piece work had been introduced, and workers were obliged to maintain a certain output in order to receive their full pay. Labour discipline had to be improved. Margaret Dewar says that whilst many leading Bolsheviks "strongly disapproved of coercive measures against the workers": "There was a sharp conflict between general socialist principles and the economic situation, the cultural and technical level of the population. The civil war ... came to overshadow all other issues. Labour discipline had to be enforced ‘from above’."35 The regime attempted at first to improve work discipline by persuasion and exhortation, but, as Dewar continues, "the sense of civic duty proved to be insufficiently developed and it was considered necessary to supplement the moral appeal by coercive measures".36

The Labour Code of December 1918 introduced the concept of compulsory labour service, and from April 1919 workers were directed to work in specific sectors, and were forbidden to leave their sectors or, in some sectors, even their jobs. This was expanded in January 1920 into a compulsory labour scheme. Any member of the vaguely-defined "working population" could be called upon to work in construction, transport, road repair, food supply, snow clearing and agriculture. Yet nothing appeared to be able to stop the slide. Of the three million industrial workers in Russia in 1917, there remained just 1,480,000 in 1920-21, and 1,240,000 in 1921-22.37 Their productivity was between 30 and 35 per cent of the prewar level, and their output was 14.5 per cent.38

The working class suffered terribly under War Communism. Working and living conditions were appalling, rations were small and had to be topped up by purchases at exorbitant cost on the thriving black market. The enlightened labour legislation that the Soviet government had introduced remained more or less a dead letter. Yet despite the dreadful hardship which the working class was forced to endure, discontent did not take a broad, organised form until the Civil War was over, although there were many localised strikes. Chase says:

"So long as the battles raged, an explanation for the hardships existed. So long as the deprivations appeared to be due to circumstances beyond the government’s control, most workers were begrudgingly resigned to endure them. However much they objected to the existing policies, while the revolution itself was in danger workers withheld their discontent. Only when the policies of War Communism continued after victory seemed assured did widespread labour unrest break out. Only then did workers demand the fruits of victory that they justly deserved and that had been promised them."39

The rural economy was of crucial importance to the Soviet government. Orlando Figes says: "The victory of the Red Army in the Civil War was ultimately dependent upon the ability of the Bolsheviks to mobilise the rural economy behind the state. Without the conscription of the rural population for military and labour services, the Red Army would have been unable to defeat the Whites and the Allied interventionary forces. Without a regular supply of foodstuffs in the towns and the garrisons, there was a serious danger that the workers and the servicemen would turn against the Bolsheviks, whom they had helped to bring to power."40

Carr says that War Communism was initiated in the countryside with the formation of the Kombedy, committees of poor peasants, on 11 June 1918.41 The establishment of the Kombedy was an attempt to build a base of support for the Soviet regime in the rural areas, and thus facilitate the collection of grain by augmenting the unpopular requisition squads. The Soviet regime hoped to split the peasantry along class lines, but this proved unsuccessful. The redistribution of the land during 1917 had led to the peasantry becoming considerably more homogenous. Furthermore, as Figes says: "The notion of a separate organ for the poor peasants cut across the traditional political culture of the peasantry, embodied in the village commune, wherein the smallholding farmers were generally tied together by their common links to the land and the village community. ... the natural-patriarchal bonds of the peasant farmers in the village were still very much stronger than the socio-economic divisions between them."42

Furthermore, the Kombedy were generally unpopular. Many of their members were not peasants, and they often resorted to coercive methods of requisitioning food surpluses, collecting taxes, etc. Some Kombedy and food requisitioning squads were little more than gangsters. Peasants hid their surplus produce, and refused to sow land in excess of their own requirements.

The winding up of the Kombedy and the introduction of the apportionment scheme (prodrazvertska) in January 1919 was simultaneously an attempt to win over the middle peasants, and to expand and systematise food procurement. Comprehensive if arbitrary quotas were set centrally, and instructions based upon them were then handed downwards through the state institutions. Large numbers of food brigades were despatched to the countryside to collect the quotas, and the peasants’ existing hostility was aggravated by the arbitrariness of the brigades’ demands. Altogether, 47.52 million puds of grain and fodder were procured in 1917-18, and the figures for 1918-19, 1919-20 and 1920-21 were 107.92, 212.5 and 283.93 million puds, a marked rise, although this was measured over an expanding area.43 The fulfilment of the procurement plan was low, with an overall average for grain collection in 1918-19 of 38.4 per cent.44 Much of the collected grain was spoiled due to poor transport and storage facilities, and considerable amounts of it disappeared into the black market.

The Soviet authorities attempted to establish collective and soviet farms, but, as Carr says, there was a "lack of any spontaneous support among the peasantry for the large unit of production in agriculture", and the policy of agricultural collectivism met with "total defeat".45 Figes says that they were unpopular with freeholding peasants as they were often badly run, inefficient, sometimes employed former landowners and estate managers, and at times conscripted freeholding peasants to work on them.46

Opposition to the Soviet authorities was far more militant in the countryside than in the urban centres, and they were faced with opposition more or less from the start. According to Chase, in 1918 alone 7309 food team members nationwide (around 20 per cent of the total) lost their lives whilst collecting foodstuffs in the rural areas.47 The coercive measures of the food requisitioning squads, the bureaucratic manner in which the Bolsheviks took over the rural soviets and the organs of local administration, and the large-scale conscription to the Red Army, provoked at first passive and then violent resistance to the Soviet authorities. As in the urban centres, the continuation of the methods of War Communism after the end of the Civil War led to the intensification of unrest, and, as Figes says, "the sporadic village riots of 1918-19 developed into the mass peasant wars of 1920-21".48

As some Bolsheviks considered War Communism to be more than just an emergency measure, they were inclined to waste time and resources in formulating well-meaning but impracticable schemes. W. Bruce Lincoln says: "Everywhere plans were drafted, proposed, discussed, and, on the basis of extensive suggestions for improvements and revisions, redrafted, resubmitted and discussed all over again as Bolshevik bureaucrats prepared elaborate proposals to build schools, hospitals and modern housing where Russia’s workers had not even yet begun to produce medicines, hospital equipment, electricity or even building materials."49 Nove mentions Gleb Krzhizhanovsky’s illuminated plan for the electrification of the Soviet republic, which practically drained Moscow of its electricity supply,50 whilst Deutscher talks of Trotsky’s plans of "astounding originality and inventiveness" for using labour armies for economic reconstruction, which were "out of joint with reality".51

The Soviet republic emerged devastated from the Civil War. Compared with 1913 figures, total industrial production in 1921 stood at 31 per cent, and heavy industry at 21 per cent. Coal production stood at 31 per cent, oil at 41.3 per cent, electricity at 25.5 per cent, pig iron at 2.4 per cent, steel at 4.7 per cent, bricks at 0.48 per cent, sugar at 3.8 per cent, and cotton fabrics at 4.1 per cent. Rail freight carried stood at 29.8 per cent.52 Agricultural output as a whole in 1921 stood at 60 per cent of the 1913 level, and the grain harvest stood at between 46.9 and 52.8 per cent.53 The yield of the major cereals of winter rye, winter wheat, spring wheat, millet and oats stood at 54.5, 36.9, 27.4, 86.3 and 40.1 per cent respectively of the prewar average, and only the yield of the relatively minor crop of maize was larger in 1921 than prewar.54 The total sown area in the Soviet republic had declined. One analyst stated that the sown area in 1920 was 75 per cent of the 1916 figure, whilst another stated that in 1921 it was 61.6 per cent of the 1913 figure.55 The number of horses, sheep and cattle in 1921 stood at 70.2, 51.2 and 69 per cent respectively of the 1916 figures.56

In some respects, society had gone backwards. In the autumn of 1920, the population of 40 provincial capitals had dropped by 33 per cent since 1917. Moscow had lost 44.5 per cent of its population, Petrograd had lost 57.5 per cent.57 Moshe Lewin considers that in the countryside, the old ruling class may have been destroyed and the land redistributed on an egalitarian basis, but the effects of the differentiation started by the Stolypin reforms, "the bigger and better producers and forms of farming", had also been eradicated. The peasants "moved back into a more ‘natural’ economy than in Tsarist Russia", and the declining peasant commune was given a new lease of life.58

Finally, the effects of War Communism upon the internal life of the Communist Party itself must be considered. Although they had no intention of creating the general militarisation of social life, the chronic economic decline and food shortages encouraged them, as we have seen, to employ administrative methods to deal with political issues when they started to encounter opposition within the peasantry and the working class. The Civil War, with its rapidly shifting fronts and the necessity to implant soviet institutions in areas where there had been none or where they had been destroyed by the Whiteguards, the large-scale mobilisation of peasants, whose political reliability was often doubtful, into the Red Army, and the general nature of military operations themselves, all worked in favour of the use of authoritarian measures. This was to have grave implications for the Bolsheviks, the great majority of whom had joined the party since the October Revolution, and whose political experience was moulded during the period of War Communism. Many years later, Trotsky, who on the strength of the successes of the Red Army had pioneered the call for the militarisation of labour as a means of reviving Soviet industry, reflected on the effects of this period, saying that "very many of the administrators, a considerable layer of them, had become accustomed to command and demand unconditional submission to their orders". He added that "Stalin, like many others, was moulded by the environment and circumstances of the Civil War, along with the group that later helped him to establish his personal dictatorship ... and a whole layer of workers and peasants" who rose up within the Soviet institutions.59

Conclusion: successes, failures and consequences
In one sense, War Communism did work. It enabled industry and agriculture to be subordinated to the requirements of the Red Army, without which the Soviet republic would have surely foundered. Nevertheless, the period of War Communism saw industry practically grind to a halt, the disintegration of the working class, a considerable decline in agricultural production, the disaffection of the peasantry, an increase in coercive social relations, and a general bureaucratisation of the Communist Party and the state apparatus. Could the Bolsheviks have implemented the policies necessary to ensure victory in the Civil War in such a manner that the above dire effects could have been avoided or at least moderated, or did their desire to build a new society not only preclude a rational implementation of these policies, but force them inexorably into taking an unnecessarily extreme course? This can be best investigated by looking at the programme of the Bolsheviks’ most consistent socialist opponents.

Despite their semi-legal status, the Mensheviks managed to maintain a sustained critique of Bolshevik practice. Their programme published in July 1919 accepted state direction of industry, but called for the denationalisation of all enterprises that were not "fundamental to economic life", and opposed the nationalisation of small industries. It called for the state to obtain surplus grain mainly on a barter principle, with the amounts to be determined by agreement with the peasants’ organisations. Private trade was to be permitted, with a state monopoly for scarce goods, and all requisitioning squads were to be wound up. Trade unions should be "wholly independent of any state bodies", and wages should be increased. Cooperatives should be fully independent bodies. The programme also demanded political and press freedom for workers’ parties, administrative decentralisation, and the abolition of the Cheka and the terror.60

It is difficult to see how some of the central demands of this programme could have been implemented. The Bolsheviks introduced food requisitioning because the urban centres had nothing to exchange with the peasants for their grain, and, had their programme been implemented, the Mensheviks would have stumbled upon the very problems that caused the Bolsheviks to resort to coercion in the first place. If, as could be implied, industry was to be turned over to produce agricultural goods, how would the Red Army be equipped? Were higher wages possible under the existing conditions? The programme had nothing concrete to say about improving labour discipline and overcoming bureaucratism (although it recognised its deleterious effects upon the masses), and its calls for decentralisation and "wholly independent" trade unions appear to be part of a barely hidden agenda of breaking the hold of the Bolsheviks over the state apparatus, and thereby to reduce their political and organisational power, and ultimately to remove them from power altogether.

The chronic decline of industry, and the concentration of the economy upon war production, plus the high inflation, meant that any government would have been obliged to resort to coercion in obtaining farm produce. Free trade in a period of hyperinflation and huge shortages would have made little difference to the plight of the urban masses. An autonomous cooperative movement may have marginally simplified and increased the food supply to the urban centres, and perhaps reduced the administrative bureaucracy a little, but it is unlikely that it would have significantly improved matters. There is nothing in the programme that suggests that the Mensheviks’ style of industrial administration would have been significantly less bureaucratic than the one already in place.

As a means of survival, War Communism did work, although the social, material and political costs were extremely high. Whilst many of the features of War Communism were unavoidable while the Civil War was occurring, the Bolsheviks would have benefited had they implemented them in a less coercive and bureaucratic manner, although it is a moot point as to how far centralisation and coercion could have been relaxed without endangering the Soviet regime.

As a means of moving directly to a socialist society, War Communism was a disaster. Deutscher considers that War Communism was a "tragic travesty" of what a socialist society was supposed to be. If socialism was to be a society in which the development and rational planning of the productive forces would provide sufficient wealth which would abolish poverty and inequality: "War Communism had, on the contrary, resulted from social disintegration, from the destruction and disorganisation of productive resources, from an unparalleled scarcity of goods and services. It did indeed try to abolish inequality; but of necessity it did so by levelling down the standards of living and making poverty universal."61

The Bolsheviks, however, were ideologically inclined towards regarding the measures of War Communism as a step towards a new society, rather than as temporary, emergency factors, and many of them deluded themselves into thinking that they were on the verge of creating a genuinely socialist society. The Civil War, with which War Communism was inextricably linked, caused many Bolsheviks to adopt an essentially administrative and indeed militaristic approach to politics. The combination of the drive for social change, and the identification of the survival of the Soviet state with their rule, which encouraged them to hold onto power and to increase their control over society, pushed them into continuing with, and indeed intensifying, the measures of War Communism after the Civil War had ended. This was a severe blunder, and it was directly responsible for a significant upsurge in working class and peasant unrest, which put the survival of the Soviet regime in jeopardy.

This author disagrees with the commonplace view that Stalinism was the inevitable and logical consequence of Bolshevism and the October Revolution, and considers that the main cause of the rise of the Soviet bureaucracy into a self-conscious ruling elite was the isolation of the revolution in a backward, war-ravaged country, which ensured that the tendencies towards bureaucratism were intensified, and that the democratic ethos that lay behind the October Revolution was finally stifled. If, as the Bolsheviks had hoped and indeed expected, successful proletarian revolutions had occurred in more advanced countries, this would have exerted a powerful counter-weight to the bureaucratisation of the Soviet republic. This did not occur, and some form of process that would transform the Soviet republic into an elite society of one sort of another was inevitable. Nevertheless, it must be said that the effects of War Communism upon Soviet society in general and the party-state apparatus in particular both influenced the form in which that process took place, and helped to undermine the opposition within the Communist Party that attempted to combat the bureaucratic trends during the 1920s.


1. R. Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror Famine, 1986, p.48.

2. E. Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, 1989, p.74, original emphasis.

3. P.C. Roberts, "War Communism: A Re-Examination", Slavic Review, Vol.29, No.2, June 1970, p.245.

4. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921, 1979, p.489.

5. M. Lewin, Political Undercurrents in Soviet Economic Debates: From Bukharin to the Modern Reformers, 1975, p.81.

6. A. Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, 1982, pp.47-8, original emphasis.

7. Lenin, "Report on the New Economic Policy", Collected Works, Vol.33, 1976, p.93.

8. Lenin, "Report on the Substitution of a Tax in Kind for the Surplus Grain Appropriation System", Collected Works, Vol.32, 1975, pp.219-20.

9. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1973, pp.21-3. Victor Serge later said: "The social system in these years was later called ‘War Communism’. At the time it was called simply ‘communism’, and anyone who, like myself, went so far as to consider it purely temporary was looked upon with disdain." (V. Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 1978, p.115)

10. G. Lukács, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought, 1977, p.31.

11. K. Radek, "The Paths of the Russian Revolution", in A. Richardson, ed, In Defence of the Russian Revolution, 1995, p.65.

12. S. Malle, The Economic Organisation of War Communism 1918-1921, 1985, p.45.

13. D. Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power: From the July Days 1917 to July 1918, 1984, p.382.

14. W.J. Chase, Workers, Society and the Soviet State: Labour and Life in Moscow 1918-1929, 1987, p.19.

15. M. Dewar, Labour Policy in the USSR 1917-1928, 1956, p.37.

16. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, Part 2, 1966, p.176. Trotsky wrote: "Three years of the Soviet regime were years of civil war. The War Department determined the government work of the entire country. All the other governmental activity was subsidiary to it.... Industry worked chiefly for war" (Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence, 1970, p.275).

17. N. Chirovsky, An Introduction to Ukrainian History: Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, 1986, pp.125, 149.

18. Malle, p.63.

19. Dewar, p.51.

20. Malle, p.65.

21. Both Nove, p.69, and Malle, pp.65-6, quote Bukharin and Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of Communism to that effect.

22. Carr, p.183.

23. Ibid, p.233.

24. Chase, pp.26-7; Nove, p.62.

25. Carr, p.251.

26. Ibid, pp.261-2.

27. Mandel, p.382.

28. Ibid, p.384.

29. Ibid.

30. Chase, p.33.

31. Cited in ibid, p.33.

32. Nevertheless, despite the Soviet government’s increasing insistence upon one-man management, in 1919 still only 10.8 per cent of enterprises in the Soviet republic were managed individually, although this figure was to rise dramatically in 1920-21. In March 1920 69 per cent of factories in Petrograd were still run by collegial boards (S.A. Smith, Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917-1918, 1983, p.242).

33. Mandel, p.384.

34. When in November 1918 Lenin said that they had "passed from workers’ control ... to workers’ industrial administration on a national scale" (Lenin, "Speech on the Anniversary of the Revolution", Collected Works, Vol.28, 1977, pp.139-40), he was identifying state administration of industry with workers’ management, that is, the democratic planning of industry through a combination of centralised control and local initiatives. For Lenin, the fact that the Soviet state was under the control of the Communist Party meant that it was ipso facto operating in the interests of the working class, and that the Soviet state, the Communist Party and the working class were more or less synonymous. As Maurice Brinton says, "the ‘proletarian’ nature of the regime was seen by nearly all the Bolshevik leaders as hinging on the proletarian nature of the party that had taken state power" (M. Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control 1917-1921: The State and Counter-Revolution, 1970, p.42). Lenin was also influenced by the low level of culture within the working class. In March 1919 he said that due to this, the Soviet regime was in fact a "government for the working people" run by the "advanced section of the proletariat", and "not by the working people as a whole" (Lenin, "Report on the Party Programme", Collected Works, Vol.83, original emphasis). Whilst Lenin wanted to see more workers involved in the running of society, and called for a higher cultural level, in the meantime he demanded for the sake of efficiency the employment of "bourgeois specialists", the introduction of one-man management, and restrictions upon collegiate methods of management. Some leading Bolsheviks provided sophisticated justifications for substitutionism. See Bukharin, The Politics and Economics of the Transition Period, 1979; and Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, 1975.

35. Dewar, p.40.

36. Ibid, p.41.

37. Carr, p.197.

38. Dewar, p.52.

39. Chase, pp.51-2.

40. O. Figes, Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside 1917-1921, 1989, p.247.

41. Carr, p.59.

42. Figes, pp.190, 192.

43. Malle, p.407. This should be compared with the 383.09 million puds collected by previous governments in 1916-17.

44. Malle, p.402.

45. Carr, p.160.

46. Figes, pp.303ff.

47. Chase, p.24.

48. Figes, p.322.

49. W.B. Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, 1991, p.380.

50. Nove, p.71.

51. Deutscher, p.494.

52. Nove, pp.68, 94.

53. Ibid, pp.68, 94. It should, however, be remembered that the grain harvest in 1913 was very good.

54. Malle, p.434.

55. Ibid, pp.428, 431.

56. Ibid, p.439.

57. Carr, pp.197-8.

58. M. Lewin, The Making of the Soviet System, 1985, p.298.

59. Trotsky, Stalin, pp.384-5. Some leading Bolsheviks were critical of both the use of coercion against the working class, and the increasing bureaucratisation of the party and state apparatuses. They deplored the drift away from workers’ control, and called for the increased involvement of the trade unions in the determination of economic policy and the running of industry (see A. Kollontai, "The Workers Opposition", Selected Writings, 1984, pp.159ff). Arguing against them, Lenin said that the working class had been declassed, and shortages and factory closures had caused them to flee: "The workers have simply abandoned their factories; they have had to settle down in the country and have ceased to be workers." (Lenin, "Summing-Up Speech on the Report of the CC of the RCP(B)", Collected Works, Vol.32, p.199) He considered that the exhausted working class was not in a position to control industry, and that any wide decentralisation or relaxation of party control would lead to chaos and the collapse of Soviet power. The opposition considered that the exclusion of rank and file workers would strengthen bureaucratic tendencies, and increase the disaffection of the masses. In their own ways, both Lenin and the oppositionists were correct. It is to Trotsky’s credit that within a relatively short time after his calls for the militarisation of labour, he was to embark upon a forthright struggle for the democratisation of the Soviet regime.

60. RSDWP Central Committee, "To All Working Men and Women: What Is To Be Done?", in A. Ascher, ed, The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, 1976, pp.111-7.

61. Deutscher, pp.489-90.